HUNDREDS OF local AIDS victims aren't enough of a draw to fill seats at a measly AIDS vigil -- cancelled this year for want of vigilers -- yet one dead college student from another state was remembered at not one but two vigils held here in the last week.

On October 7 of last year, Matthew Shepard, a slight and pretty college student in Wyoming, was lured into a truck by two thugs, beaten to a bloody pulp, tied to a split-rail fence, and left to die. Shepard was still alive when he was found the next morning -- by a man who at first thought he was a scarecrow -- and died four days later, while his parents stood at his hospital bedside. A man attending a vigil in Manhattan after Shepard's death last year was asked what the lesson in Shepard's death was for gay and lesbian Americans. "Sometimes, in our little gay lives in the middle of America," he replied, "I think we have forgotten that they kill us. They hate us."

Shepard's brutal murder provoked calls for the passage of state and federal hate crime legislation, and on the first anniversary of his death, gay rights groups and vigil organizers busily reinforced the "they hate us, they really hate us" interpretation of Shepard's death. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) pointed out in a press release on October 11, the first anniversary of Shepard's death, that "the murder of Matthew Shepard and other hate crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people [failed] to move most lawmakers to pass strong hate crimes laws." The NGLTF points out that 20 other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people have been murdered across the United States in the 12 months since Shepard died, including a gay couple in California (Winfield Mowder and Gary Matson), allegedly murdered by two bible-believing brothers, and a gay man in Alabama (Billy Jack Gaither), whose body was burned on a stack of tires by his assailants.

"The murder of Matthew Shepard was a national clarion call for strong hate crimes laws," said Kerry Lobel, NGLTF's executive director, in NGLTF's press release. "But most of our political leaders have failed to respond." Hate crime laws inclusive of sexual orientation were already on the books in 22 states (including Washington) when Shepard was murdered, but only three states -- Missouri, California, and New Hampshire -- acted on hate crime legislation after Shepard's death. For the NGLTF, the lesson in Shepard's murder is that, despite the passage of state and federal hate crime legislation, Matthew Shepard died in vain. This places Shepard in the awkward position of having died in vain in some states (Hawaii, Idaho, North Carolina, etc.), but not in others (Missouri, California, New Hampshire).

In a recent New York Times Magazine cover story titled, "What's So Bad About Hate?" writer Andrew Sullivan pointed out that hate is hard to define, and harder still to prosecute. In real terms, Sullivan pointed out, the number of hate crimes in the United States has been declining over the last seven years, not rising. When asked what he thought the "lesson" of Matthew Shepard's death was, Sullivan said it demonstrated that "there are no depths to which our gay rights organizations will not sink to exploit the memory of a tragically murdered homosexual. That poor boy's body was barely cold before the fundraising direct mail was being drafted and sent out. To use him to promote hate crime laws -- which could neither have prevented his death nor punished his murderers more severely -- is particularly shocking."

Most everyone I talked to is, I believe, missing the point, or the real "lesson," in Matthew Shepard's murder. Had Matthew Shepard been murdered 40 years ago -- even 15 years ago -- it's unlikely that his killers would have faced life in prison or the death penalty. Men who killed homosexuals only had to claim their victim made a pass at them, inducing "homosexual panic," and walk free or spend a few measly months in jail. Yet when the girlfriend of one of the men who killed Shepard raised the homosexual panic defense, claiming on 20/20 that Shepard made a pass at his killers -- leaving them no choice but to "teach him a lesson" -- it went nowhere. One of Shepard's killers has already been sentenced to life in prison, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the other.

The real lesson in Shepard's death is that his murderers are being prosecuted as aggressively as they would be if their victim had been a little old lady kidnapped from a church. Not only have prosecutors sought the death penalty for Shepard's assailants, they've also sought the same for the men who murdered Billy Jack Gaither, Winfield Mowder, and Gary Matson. There will always be hate-filled motherfuckers, and people will continue to kill other people on account of their race, gender, and sexuality. We know this already, so it's not really a lesson we can learn -- it's so obvious that it's practically banal. The real lesson in Shepard's murder isn't that some people hate us -- we knew that before Shepard was killed, right? -- or that some people are violent -- ditto, right? -- but that the same police and prosecutors, judges and juries that used to set the murderers of gay men free are now prosecuting these scumbags to the fullest extent of the law. And that's progress, folks.

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